The Curious Matter Holiday Installation, 2016-2017
by chance and appointment during the holidays
It has been a year of choices. Our conversations were uncharacteristically colored by references to the politics of the day. Those who might otherwise seem apolitical or divorced from the machinations of red, blue and green ideologies were vocal and passionate this year. Among the candidates for the 58th presidential election the usual histrionics were pitched high. Following the inescapable spectacle of the campaigns, the outcome was a potent shock to many. We’ve noted the lingering despondency of those disappointed in the tallies match the bleak grey that shades our end-of-year daylight hours.
We’ve searched our collection of household devotions and have chosen the print The Broad and Narrow Way to illuminate our thoughts and feelings for this particular year. It serves as the centerpiece of our holiday installation. The image was designed in 1862 by a pious woman from Stuttgart, Germany named Charlotte Reihlen. She envisioned the work and called upon the drafting skills of a young man named Schacher. Together they worked and reworked the various scenes. The final lithograph was based on several of their sketches. The German edition was followed by a Dutch translation and eventually others in English. Our version was printed by Headley Brothers and published by Gawin Kirkham of London in 1883.
The work illustrates Matthew’s gospel:
7:13 Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.
7:14 Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. —The Holy Bible, New King James Version
The print’s “broad way” captures a cacophony of temptations, from a beer garden to a ball room, a tavern of “worldliness,” and even a loan office at the side of a gambling hall. Ultimately, the broad road leads to the orange and yellow tongues of flame that will greet the damned — the sky above populated by lost souls who float in despair among jagged bolts of lightning. This way to destruction meanders up the left side of the picture plane, while the pastoral scenes of the narrow way occupy the right. Church, Sunday school, and other godly activities lead to the kingdom of heaven. Here we find life and salvation, the sky golden with angels.
For each vignette depicted, a passage from the Bible is referenced to reinforce Christian doctrine and illustrate the steps along the road to hell or heaven. For example, on the left, next to a barmaid and a couple of men drinking we read: “Isaiah 5:11” which corresponds to the quote: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, That they may follow intoxicating drink; Who continue until night, till wine inflames them!” To the right, on the narrow path, “Mark 6:2” is printed on the side of a Sunday School — “And when the Sabbath had come. He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished….”
Our installation also includes a hand-painted Victorian lantern slide. The scene on the glass depicts a man in bed suddenly awake from a dream. He clutches his forehead, and swirling above him is a scene of damnation on the left and salvation on the right — a duality that matches the lessons of The Broad and Narrow Way. Our gentleman must make a choice. He is being forced by the powers of the Spirit to confront his life’s goal. Will he follow a path towards damnation or accept the Divine and be allowed the key to heaven and union with God? While Charlotte Reihlen presented us with public scenes to illustrate the choices we face, the lantern slide reveals a more private grappling with which path we’re to take.
The annual Curious Matter holiday installation, as ever, seeks to uncover the universal message, the good will, the aspect of our most noble efforts as humans to do and be good, as found within our personal connection to household devotional artifacts. This year, The Broad and Narrow Way lithograph is so richly encoded with Biblical reference that it is possible our intention may seem indecipherable to anyone other than a religious scholar or someone as pious as Frau Reihlen herself. But, our intention is simple.
Each of us must make our own decisions and follow the consequences of our own actions. In the end, whether in public or private, the choices are ours. If you look closely at the fence that divides the broad from the narrow way in our print, you’ll see it is broken in several places. Apparently, there are opportunities to slip from one side to the other. So, it would seem no one is irredeemable, or for that matter, beyond the lure of temptation. In a year where we were asked to choose, the year ahead will bring yet more choices. The Broad and Narrow Way, for us, isn’t so much about what any one religion or doctrine may assert as the true path of righteousness. Rather, how do we reach out to those who occupy a place that seems beyond reconciliation with our own? Our own path has been a meandering one. It may not be pious, or hold fast to the narrow way, but it benefits from quiet contemplation. And, when we require fortification to speak out, our hope is that no one’s humanity is denied in the process. The remnants of our Catholic catechism still color our world view; we aspire to extend good will towards all.
As we march into 2017, we wish you all love and happiness and trust our finest collective sentiments will illuminate the path forward.
Every best wish for the world,
Raymond E. Mingst & Arthur Bruso